Friday, March 16, 2012
40 Years Ago Today
3:00 pm today will mark 40 years since the implosion of the first of 33 towers at Pruitt Igoe, bringing an end to one of the largest social experiments of its kind. The recent documentary movie The Pruitt-Igoe Myth downplays the role of Hellmuth Yamasaki & Leinweber, the projects architect, which is appropriate since most reviews up to that point had failed to look at all of the circumstances that resulted in Pruitt Igoes demise. By no means does Yamasaki deserve a Get out of Jail Free card though. The truth of the matter is that the architects, the city planners, the police, the City's government, the State, the Federal government, and everyone in between ALL failed and failed BIG. In the fictional movie The Matrix, this was called this System Failure, but here in St. Louis, it happened in real life.
Ridding the North Side of the single largest failure in St. Louis' history, and perhaps the largest failure of its kind, did not leave the area without problems. Whether you believe the conspiracy theories of the Team Four Plan or not, there is no disputing that depletion did indeed occur on a massive scale. It was already well underway when the last building at Pruitt Igoe fell in 1977. Abandonment, ensuing decay and demolition spread like cancer over the decades and large scale developer speculation has only accelerated the process which in many areas has reached the point of almost of almost total elimination.
The enormous scale of the failure of Pruitt Igoe is sometimes hard to grasp. Even today if you visit the wilderness that has overtaken the site over the last 35 years since the last tower fell, it is difficult to imagine. The Puitt Igoe flyover scenes in Koyaanisqatsi - Life Out of Balance feel eerily disconnected from reality, yet recently when I was watching I noticed one brief glimpse between the towers that brought it back to present day. The appearance of the Grace Baptist Church just across Cass Avenue from the Pruitt Igoe site has not changed in the time since the towers were still standing.
This afternoon at 5:30, a picnic hosted by Reclaimed Spaces will be held on the Pruitt Igoe site. Today marks the closing date for submissions to Pruitt Igoe Now, a design competition intended to solicit new ideas for the long vacant site. I have chosen not to participate in the contest because I have absolutely zero confidence that we have come far enough in the last 40 years to resolve the issues which led to such an enormous failure. Since the implosions, every scheme so far to redevelop the Pruitt Igoe site and surrounding areas, from a light industrial park to a golf course community to the ill-defined latest and most controversial, Northside, has fallen flat on its face.
Even if there comes a time when the deeply seated issues that divide this region are able to be overcome, and even if by some miracle, Northside is able to succeed in redeveloping the entire area around the former Pruitt Igoe site into a thriving neighborhood, I'm of the opinion that it should stay much like it is, but oped to public use as a nature reserve. Other than Kennedy Forest in Forest Park and some small pockets of leftover space here and there, the remaining portion of the Pruitt Igoe site is only space within the City or inner ring or suburbs that is truly wild. We have a lot of great park space, but the majority of it is neatly manicured. If we bulldoze the Pruitt Igoe wilderness for a grocery store or some tract houses, it would be very easy for future generations to completely forget what happened there, and that would be a mistake.